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My big fat Food Complex

I love “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”!

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve rewatched it and it still tickles my soul every single time. Granted it’s full of cliches and cultural caricatures and the rom-com elements are predictable. You could even argue that it mocks minorities for holding on to their traditions and cultural identity. I don’t care! I still want the Portokalos to adopt me. The fact that their solution to every problem is the interjection “Eat!” makes them # FamilyGoals.

But in all seriousness, what I really love about this movie is that it explores the world through the eyes of outsiders and it does that by using food in the same way actors in Ancient Greece used masks: to communicate emotions and define characters. Food is what makes Toula’s transformation from an ugly duckling/outsider to a confident and beautiful young women so satisfying and poignant. It’s food that shows how she’s come full circle from sitting alone during lunch break where, as a chubby little girl, she gets mocked for bringing Moussaka as her school lunch. The popular kids are eating sandwiches and they make fun of her over her strange food and its funny name.

Years later, a grownup Toula has started taking classes at a local college. She feels confident enough to sit with the other girls during the break, and when she pulls out a plain sandwich from a brown bag with a huge smile, we know that her transformation is complete.

Some might interpret this scene as a cultural battle between Moussaka vs the Wonder bread sandwich with the ethnic food losing to the generic sandwich. But the glint in Toula’s eye is unmistakeable. It says: “I belong!”

The first scene always reminds me of the time when I went on a scouts trip to the legendary fortress of Crac des Chevaliers and Mum put veal scallops in my lunch box! Even though no one mocked me or made fun of my food, the feeling of isolation and embarrassment was the same.

In truth, school had already created the first cracks in my hermetically sealed existence. Much in the same way an immigrant child learns about his adopted country from school, most of what I learned about my home country’s food was thanks to my classmates.

My own “I belong” moments came when I was finally allowed to walk home instead of waiting for the school bus. There were carts of street food always parked outside of our school strategically placed to catch hungry kids just as they’re making their way home to eat lunch.

The smell was spellbinding: broad beans simmering in sumac sauce, sesame rings and crunchy shells of pastry that looked like rugby balls with tangy Daqqa powder dumped inside for dipping.

In spring, there were unripe almonds that you crunch on whole and wickedly sour plums that we dipped into salt for a refreshing snack.

Of course, when I showed up at home with a very satiated appetite, my mother would put two and two together and go into an (understandable) fit of rage: You ate! From those filthy vendors?! She’d almost gag at the thought of it. She did have a point as there was zero health control or safeguards for these carts but truth be told, I never got sick from eating on the streets in Syria- not once!

So she’d huff and she’d puff and probably complain to my dad about my unruly eating habits. All my dad had to do was cut off my pocket money and the problem would be solved. He didn’t. I still got my 5 Liras every morning in an implicit blessing to go on exploring to my heart’s content.

In hindsight, that minor act of rebellion was life changing. Those humble vendors introduced me to tastes and textures that I had not experienced before. They helped program my pallet to distinguish and appreciate how sour, tangy and tart flavours, the cornerstone of Syrian cuisine, are used for maximum effect.

This would become the trademark of Dervish Kitchen that set it apart from other Middle-eastern eateries in town: it embraces the sour elements fearlessly! Whether it’s sumac, pomegranate molasses or oodles of lemon juice, those flavours are my way of paying tribute to those humble treats of my youth. A reminder to myself and a pledge that I DO belong.

(Check this post for authentic street vendor images :

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